by MICHELE STERNBERG

Indigenous chef and Sunny Coast bush tucker queen Dale Chapman is glad the world has finally caught up with her passion for native Australian ingredients.

For decades she has been spruiking the benefits of using native ingredients in cooking – to chefs and everyday Aussies from all cultural backgrounds. 

She’s thrilled things such as warrigal greens, pepperberries, finger limes, quandongs and lemon myrtle are making their way on to restaurant menus and into common foodie vernacular.

“Twenty years ago when I started my company, I was one of only five women doing this,” Aunty Dale says. “Last year, before Covid hit, a symposium in Sydney attracted 200 bush food businesses. Two hundred! I was chuffed.”

However, popularity has created somewhat of a supply issue.

The First Nations Bushfoods Alliance Australia (FINBAA) has been created to work with Indigenous communities to create awareness of the growing demand and establish more reliable supply chains.

Aunty Dale says many foods, such as the bush tomato, only grow in certain areas of Australia. 

“The bush tomato is native to Alice Springs so you won’t be able to grow it here,” she says. “We’ve been working with women in the Territory who forage for them in the bush and farmers who have planted rows and rows to create a more viable supply stream.

“I make a bush tomato relish and I don’t get many complaints other than when we’ve run out.”

One of her favourite recipes is lilly pilly jam because the berries include a rich variety of flavours including ginger, clove and cinnamon.

“When I was in Nice in France, I made a possum pate and I served it with a lilly pilly compote and one of the chefs asked if I had added ginger to it,” she says. “I hadn’t. The flavours all come out of that little seed. So when you’re cooking it you’ll smell those ginger, clove and cinnamon flavours.”

Aunty Dale has published a cookbook to share some of her favourite ingredients and recipes.

“It’s called Coo-ee Cuisine because when we were kids and out in the paddock, mum would yell ‘coo-ee’ and we would run back because we knew there was food on the table. So I had to call it Coo-ee Cuisine,” she says.

“The book is an easy, simple way to infuse bush foods into everyday cooking and everyday meals.”

Coo-ee Cuisine includes recipes such as saltbush polenta cakes, lemon myrtle cheesecake, bush tomato damper, native white Christmas slice, jungle jam, olives in anise myrtle and warrigal and spinach feta pie.

“I’m always asked ‘what do you do with that fruit, what do you do with this leaf?’,” she says. “It’s the result of a whole heap of little notes that I’ve written down over the years. I had all these recipes in my head and had to put it on to paper.”

The idea is to encourage Aussies to use more native ingredients in the kitchen.

“You can grow these things in your backyard, or you can buy them from my little shop behind the bakery at Forest Glen or markets, and then be able to have it in your diet,” she says.

Aunty Dale says lemon myrtle is one of the more versatile herbs.

“It’s antibacterial, antifungal, it’s calming and sedative,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing to have as a tea, in winter it’s a great thing to put into biscuits.”

Aunty Dale was born in Dirranbandi in southwest Queensland on Yuwaalaraay and Kooma land but has called the Sunny Coast (Gubbi Gubbi land) home since 1976.

Her company, My Dilly Bag, has a retail element selling jams, sauces, dukkas and spice blends, but it is also about education.

Aunty Dale wants to see Indigenous communities returning to using bush foods because they can be an effective weapon in the fight against heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which are some common health problems affecting many Aboriginal people.

For example, she said old man saltbush contained 20 per cent less sodium than regular sea salt.

“It has a salty taste to it. When you use it a lot, you get used to it,” she says.

She hands me a little green leaf, pulled straight off a branch. 

“Shut your eyes and taste it – it’s a lolly.”

Was she kidding? I’m expecting the salty old man saltbush leaf.

But no. Far from it. As I hesitantly take a nibble, I am shocked. It is a black jelly bean. Licorice.

“It’s anise myrtle,” she says. “Traditionally Aboriginal women would consume it and it was good for bringing on breast milk. Anise is very good for the gut, as well.

“But if they had a toothache, they grabbed the leaves from the lemon myrtle to chew.”

The myrtles (Backhousia) also come in other flavours including honey, rose, cinnamon and curry. All can be used to add flavour to your cooking or infused in hot water to create a tea.

Aunty Dale says that for Indigenous communities, bush foods are also medicinal.

“A lot of our herbs and spices are very high in antioxidants, vitamin C, folates and magnesium … great things for inner health,” she says.

Aunty Dale conducts regular bush food workshops and training sessions to show people how easy it is to start using bush foods in meals at home. Visit mydillybag.com.au.